The captain of the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner was not wearing his glasses on the evening of the accident and asked his first officer to check the radar for him, the officer's lawyer said on Saturday.
The giant cruise liner capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio after hitting a rock on Jan. 13, killing at least 25 people. Seven people are still unaccounted for.
Prosecutors have accused Captain Francesco Schettino of causing the disaster by bringing the multi-story Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, too close to the shore.
The ship's first officer, Ciro Ambrosio, and seven other officers and executives of the ship's owner, Costa Cruises, are also under investigation.
Ambrosio has told investigating magistrates that Schettino, 51, did not have his glasses on when he steered the massive ship within a stone's throw of shore in the dark of night to perform a maneuver called a "salute." Many of the passengers were having dinner at the time of impact.
"That evening Schettino had left his reading glasses in the cabin and repeatedly asked Ambrosio to look at the radar to check the route," Ambrosio's lawyer Salvatore Catalano told Reuters, quoting his client's testimony to magistrates.
Schettino has said that the rock hit by the cruise liner was not on his navigational charts.
The captain has acknowledged that he brought the ship too close to the shore, but he says he was not the only one to blame for the tragedy.
Catalano said his client was the only officer on the ship's bridge who went ahead and ordered the listing vessel to be evacuated before the captain made up his mind to do it himself.
"He ordered the lifeboats to be put to sea from deck number four," Catalano said.
Catalano was speaking in the Tuscan city of Grosseto, where a pre-trial hearing into the disaster took place on Saturday. None of those under investigation attended the hearing, which was held in a theater to accommodate hundreds of victims' relatives, survivors and lawyers for all sides.
NBC News reported that more than 4,000 people were invited to attend the hearing. In order to fit everyone in one space the trial was held in the Modern Theater in the coastal town of Grosseto.
The theater was expected to accommodate victims' relatives, survivors and lawyers for all sides, but was not open to the general public or media.
"We are here to look for justice and the truth, rather than compensation. They almost killed us," Giacomo Brignone, a survivor of the accident, told NBC.
"We want to know the truth, what happened, and what we are supposed to do now. That's all we are asking," said Hilaire Blemand, a French national whose 25-year-old son Michael was onboard the ship with his girlfriend Mylene Litzler, 23.
Both are still reported missing.
"It's been too long already, it's been six weeks," he said.
Fighting back tears at his side, Mylene's mother Brigitte Litzler said her anguish had deepened after identification of the bodies was suspended at the request of the lawyer for one of the ship's officers under investigation. He argued forensic experts from the defense team should be part of the process.
"It's like they have killed them a second time," Litzler said. "We are dead inside already; they have killed our kids so we are dead, too. But we won't give up, we will keep returning until we have them back."
During the hearing, the judge appointed various experts to analyze the data from the ship's black box. It could take as long as three months for them to present their findings, public prosecutor Francesco Verusio told Reuters.
Captain, under house arrest, did not attend hearing
Schettino is accused of a string of charges, including multiple manslaughter and abandoning the 114,500-ton liner before the evacuation of all passengers and crew. He is under arrest at his home in Meta di Sorrento, near Naples, and did not attend the hearing.
His lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, said he could have been in danger had he decided to attend.
The captain "is a man who has feelings, who is pained over what happened. He feels pain for the victims," Leporatti told Reuters Television.
Lawyer: Captain of capsized cruise ship could be in danger
Neither Schettino, nor his wife, Fabiola Russo, nor his brothers spoke to reporters who sought comments from them at his home on Saturday.
His presence at the hearing would have been "unnecessary and perhaps with this climate that has been created around him, also a little dangerous for him," Leporatti said.
His neighbors in the sleepy seaside town continued to defend him.
"It's normal for accidents to happen at sea," Franco D'Elia, a former sailor, told Reuters. "Accidents happen on solid ground, at sea, and in the sky."
Others weren't as sympathetic to Schettino.
"I don't think he has got the guts to show up in front of all the passengers whom he put through all that fear," Adriano Bertaglia, a survivor participating in a class action suit against the company, told Reuters in front of the theater.
he hearing comes after 627 passengers disembarked in the Seychelles on Thursday from another Costa liner, the Costa Allegra, which had to be towed for three days by a French fishing boat in the Indian Ocean after a fire knocked out its engines.
Marco de Luca, the lawyer for Costa Cruises, told NBC: "I think we were unlucky. I don't think anybody can deny that."